Media comment: The media, the restaurant and a response

Israel’s present regulatory agencies are quite powerless.

TV 311 (photo credit: Hemera)
TV 311
(photo credit: Hemera)
Regulating the media is tough.
Israel’s present regulatory agencies are quite powerless.
The TV concessionaires violate their agreements with the government with impunity. It is the public which pays the price, receiving third-rate programming and too many commercials both on TV and radio.
The media companies complain about the media market crisis and look for more aid from the government, i.e., from the taxpayers’ pocket. Communications Minister Gilad Erdan, because of this “crisis,” has appointed the Shechter Commission, charged with “looking into the regulation of commercial broadcasting.”
Professor Amit Shechter’s media-related career started in 1993 when he became the legal adviser of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, a position he held for four years. Shechter, born in the US, returned there in 2004 as an associate professor of Telecommunications at Penn State. Today, he is a senior lecturer at the Communications Department of Ben-Gurion University specializing in mass media and its effects on Israeli democracy.
The commission was asked to look into central issues regarding media regulation in Israel. These include essential principles needed to assure fair and balanced regulation of all broadcasters; alternative models for the existing regulatory agencies; and the question of whether advertisement should be permitted in cable and satellite broadcasts. The commission was also charged with indicating how public broadcasting would be treated under the proposed new framework.
The public was also asked to respond. Israel’s Media Watch submitted a position paper and appeared before the commission this past Sunday. We believe that the key response to the minister’s queries is a free market. We suggested that an excellent model is the restaurant business.
Anyone in Israel can open a restaurant. The proprietor’s responsibilities are to assure sanitary conditions and legal business management. The government does not tell the owner what food to prepare, whether Moroccan, Chinese, kosher or whatever. The only important task the government has in this regard is to assure that the restaurant’s patrons receive edible food which will cause no harm. Why is the media different? Why does the government meddle with the content of the commercial media provider? The government does not ask restaurateurs whether they import food or use the local market. Why then should it impose on the commercial broadcaster predetermined levels of locally bought media programs? It is the government’s duty to intervene only in the publicly funded media, which should reflect the Zionist ethos of Israel, be pluralistic, adhere to media ethics and much more.
20th century limitations constrained the number of TV broadcasters in the country to two or three. The government distributed concessions and received royalties accordingly. 21st century technology, however, has eliminated these constraints. The airwaves are becoming limitless.
The IBA and army radio station’s monopoly on national broadcasting will shortly disappear. Within five years, our car stereos will have direct access to the Internet and any Internet radio provider will be able to broadcast nationally.
The very concept of radio broadcasting concessions or regional broadcasting licenses is outdated. Anyone can broadcast through the Internet. Royalties to the government should also become an issue of the past. Any company making profits pays taxes, and that’s that.
What then of ethics? Preventing harmful broadcasts and the like? The restaurant parallel is spoiled food. If people eating at a certain restaurant start getting sick, the regulator will close the restaurant.
The same should be done with the media. No more hanky-panky resulting in ridiculously small fines which broadcasters are happy to pay. Can this be done in practice considering the ease of usage of the Internet? Yes: make it illegal to advertise on websites that have been shut down, adding serious fines for those advertisers who break the law.
Restaurants in Israel can offer non-kosher or kosher food. Those who choose to offer kosher food do so for commercial reasons, even though they must pay more. The media parallel is clear: Those media companies that want to continue using the airwaves provided to them by the government, for example though Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT), would have to accept more stringent supervision of content, ethics, their Internet content and the like. They would do so not because the government imposes this upon them, but due to their perception that this brings with it larger market share.
Advertising is the oil that lubricates the media market. It should be open and free to all, whether through Internet, cable or satellite.
But it must be prohibited in any form to publicly funded broadcasters.
The funding they get from the government is nowadays misused to lower advertising rates, seriously harming the commercial media market.
A restaurant gets a license for selling prepared food to the public.
Food companies have licenses to provide the restaurant with the ingredients. The media purveyors, that is, the cable and satellite companies, should do just that. Their license should be for providing the platform for the media companies.
They should, however, not be allowed to provide any content of their own. This would lead to the elimination of the hefty prices that they have forced the public to pay for their (low quality) services.
The media business is not really very different from the restaurant business. The public knows how to choose good restaurants, and is willing to pay for them. The same should be the standard for the media market. It is high time that the government stops meddling in it.
And a response: Last week, Dr. Tehilla Shwartz-Altshuler, in defense of her employer, the Israel Democracy Institute, in her May 7 article “The IDI: Advocates of diversity and transparency in the media” suggested that we did not properly present facts, that we do not recognize social media platforms as media and that she actually “supported the survival of Makor Rishon,” and “sign[ed] petitions” to that end.
The reader can judge her level of support from the following quote of her words as they appeared on The Times of Israel website on April 1 this year: “‘Adelson’s purchase of Makor Rishon is sad,’ said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Media Reform Project. ‘It consolidates the media market, which is bad for content, but we shouldn’t mourn it....’” So, did Dr. Altshuler really support Makor Rishon? For the past year and more, Israel’s Media Watch took active steps to protect especially the employees of Makor Rishon. We petitioned the anti-trust commissioner to hand down a quick decision, before Passover.
But the IDI did nothing. IDI sources gave statements only after Makor Rishon itself complained about their lack of interest. Altshuler claims that she wrote an article that Haaretz rejected – but why did she not publish it at the IDI’s own “Seventh Eye”? We maintain that the IDI failed to adequately protect the freedom of the press.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.